A vegetarian dilemma – is it okay to eat your mothers Christmas ham?

The Socratic Society’s Philosophy Discussion Group meets again on Tuesday, August 19th in Morven Brown 372 from midday until 2pm. Anyone with an interest in the topic is welcome, and you can come and go at any time; you don’t need to be there for the whole two hours. Light refreshments will be provided.

The topic is “Animal ethics and vegetarianism”.

I’m a vegetarian. I believe that eating meat is wrong because it causes terrible suffering to animals. However, every year I face a dilemma. My mother slaves for hours to prepare a traditional Christmas lunch, which includes a huge leg of ham. Should I refuse the ham and hurt my mother’s feelings, or eat the ham and betray my ethical beliefs?

Peter Singer is an arguably Australia’s most famous philosopher. He is also a vegan for ethical reasons. He believes that it is morally wrong to eat meat, and his beliefs are based on an ethical theory called preference utilitarianism. Wikipedia summarises this theory thusly:

“Preference utilitarians define a morally right action as that which produces the most favourable consequences for the people involved. Preference utilitarians interpret the best consequences in terms of ‘preference satisfaction’. This means that ‘good’ is described as the satisfaction of each person’s individual preferences or desires, and a right action is that which leads to this satisfaction.”

Got it? Me either. Don’t worry – there is no need to understand the technicalities of Singer’s theory to realise that eating meat is wrong. Consider the following argument:

1.       It is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering
2.       Animals suffer during the process of producing meat for human consumption
3.       Humans don’t need to eat meat to survive
4.       When a person purchases  meat, they cause more meat to be produced
5.       So, purchasing meat causes unnecessary suffering

Conclusion: purchasing meat is wrong.

I find this argument terribly compelling. It is no doubt possible to raise numerous theoretical objections, but as far as I’m concerned it is kindergarten ethics: you shouldn’t do things that cause people or animals to suffer. Don’t kick the little kitty, don’t crush lizards with stones, and don’t eat the pig.

But what about that Christmas ham? I distinguish between purchasing meat and eating meat. The way I see it, my mother is going to buy that ham no matter what I say, so it makes no difference whether I eat it or not. The producers are still going to get their money and that is still going to encourage them to produce meat. If eating the ham doesn’t cause unnecessary suffering, then the above argument doesn’t apply. Pass the apple sauce, please.

See you on Tuesday.


16 responses to “A vegetarian dilemma – is it okay to eat your mothers Christmas ham?

  1. Two immediate responses, neither exactly answering the question (but as Charlie Brown once sagely observed, no problem is too big to run away from):
    1) people who’ve been vegetarian for a while frequently react with nausea to the sight and smell of meat. Surely your mother doesn’t want you to be ill? and on Christmas Day too.
    2) isn’t it rather passive-aggressive of your mother to expect you to violate your ethics for her? turn the question around – why is she putting this guilt trip on you?

  2. I find a similar reasoning applies to the way I will happily wear fur coats from opshops (charity shops, not for-profit second hand shops) but wouldn’t ever buy one new.

  3. Lilly, aren’t you still increasing the demand for 2nd hand fur? & maybe supporting the industry? Someone else may choose to buy a new fur coat cause you took the 2nd hand one.

    Anyhow, if Mum knows you’re vegetarian and respects that, she’ll happily make something veg just for you! Geez, it’s depressing enough eating with a table of meat-eaters without that as well!

    People sometimes say “Sorry” to me as they tuck into dead chicken/cow/lamb – as if my discomfort is the issue! I guess it is, to them. “If you care, feel sorry for the animal instead”, I say, or I used to before I gave up trying to convert others, in this “land of the meat pie”!

    Love the phrase “kindergarten ethics”! Damn right about that.

  4. As a continuation of the wearing even 2nd hand leather or fur – by wearing it you legitimise its use. Someone who sees you walking down the street is not going to distinguish between a new and a second-hand leather item, and this renders the practice of using leather acceptable. But as a vegetarian who also happily wears ancient Doc Martins and a market-bought leather jacket, I think there is a point beyond which your influence as a consumer is so diluted it becomes negligible.
    More generally on the topic… I hate being made to feel guilty about having a certain moral belief, and just as much hate to have to leave that outside family life. But now that you mention it, how far away is loyalty to one’s family and its traditions from kindergarten ethics? We do make a lot of moral concessions for people who are in proximity to us, and this isn’t really something we question.
    Ah well, at least these days my mum also makes nutloaf!

  5. I can see the well made point and I also find Signer’s argument compelling, but it’s also much easier to get your nutrients by being omnivirious. Nuts and beans are great, but they can’t replace lamb cutlets as a convenient source of protein. That and most people in our Australian culture have been born and raised to a) see meat eating as a status symbol because it’s more expensive and b) enjoy eating it. I use a story my Dad tells about his brief stint as a vegetarian as a case study. He tried herbivory for about a month and went to a vegetarian friend’s house for a nutloaf BBQ and nearly foamed at the mouth at the smell of the neighbours’ roast lamb.
    I also think that as a whole, yes, we eat too much meat and I agree that it’s unethical (except for free-range, but thats inefficient and so isn’t a big busines)… but I guess I’m arguing that it is also an ingrained part of our society and it will take a lot of adjusting to either stop people eating meat or change the way we harvest meat to make it ethical and sustainable, particularly in Australia where this is a problem. Cattle are a huge problem for our environment, causing a plethora of conservation problems.

    anyway, that’s my two-cent’s worth.

  6. The concept of a militant vegetarian came up in the discussion, so I decided to do a web search and find one, and I did. Have a read meat eaters 🙂


  7. RosieM,

    Im glad you mentioned the environmental harm caused by the meat industry, not to mention its economic inefficiency. According to the trusty wiki, which quoted the results of a 2006 report by the Livestock, Environment And Development Initiative, “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Its been scientifically proven that “modern practices of raising animals for food contributes on a “massive scale” to air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.” The enormous amount of grains and crop foods consumed by livestock that are commercially bred to be eaten, works out to be economically and environmentally unsustainable – imagine how much food a cow consumes in its lifetime in order to give us just a few kilos of meat. Its so isn’t worth it. And thats just the scientific facts of the impact of the livestock industry on the earth and economy.

    Morally, I think because we are physically and emotionally distanced from the impact our carnivorous diet has, ie. When we buy a roast chicken in the supermarket we aren’t exposed to images of the chicken’s caged life and senseless death, we aren’t connected to it as anything but food. I think that dissociation plays a large part in human indifference and callousness. If images from livestock slaughterhouses and abattoirs were displayed next to the meat section when you shop, im sure you’d no longer have an appetite for that succulent roast…

    That we consider ourselves entitled to take the lives of animals merely to satisfy our taste buds astounds me. Its sooo self-centred and anthropocentric.

    I think it is testament to human selfishness and arrogance that we continue to choose a carnivorous diet that causes irreversible environmental damage to the earth, is economically inefficient, and financially supports animal cruelty and the unnecessary deaths of innocent animals. And why do we do this? Because meat tastes good, it’s part of our culture and hey – there are vitamins and minerals in meat. Sure, we could easily get iron from prunes and green leafy vegetables etc etc and we could get our protein just as easily from legumes and nuts and soy beans etc… but meh, it suits us better to slaughter animals and cause environmental harm than to sacrifice something we enjoy… Its bullshit. (Am i allowed to swear on this?)

    Some people excuse meat eating by referenceing the long history of it in our society… but since when did an action automatically become justified and ‘good’ simply because millions of people do it and have been doing it for a while? Maybe its time for those social customs like the Ozzy BBQ and the Sunday Roast to change. Is it really that big of a sacrifice?

    About the Christmas Ham, ok so if you’re not the person paying for the meat – if the meat is already bought, then you’re not financially supporting the industry and therefore not contributing to the harm meat production causes, so the ethics of vegetarianism aren’t really relevant. But if you would rather not eat that Christmas Ham, then im sure your mum, being understanding and supportive as all Mothers always are, would understand your decision to skip those few slices of ham in order to stay loyal to your personal values. I mean come on, whats more important, complimenting one of your mother’s dishes or staying true to your own personal beliefs? Im sure your mum wont be that insulted… Coz choosing not to eat meat is really not that big of a deal… Its choosing to eat meat that people should be losing sleep over at night.

    Sorry about the rant guys, but its a great topic…

    • Andrew (Sapere Aude)

      It is really the fat in meat that tastes good to humans, for evolutionary reasons. Eating meat requires suffering from an animal, especially with factory farming, and it is killing for enjoyment as you don’t die from not eating meat! Morally causing suffering is wrong, so same goes for eggs and milk. Can plants suffer? they appear to, therefore Fruitarian is morally ok as not even plants are killed. Fur! wearing even fake fur continues and instils the demand, fur wearing is obscene as the fur is on the outside of the jacket like a trophy instead of inside to be functional for warmth. Clubbing seals to death (and they don’t often die with the first blow) does the morality even need debate! With the Xmas ham it is the moral obligation of the son to prevent unnecessary suffering and inform the mother of the unsanitised version of how ham arrives at the supermarket, then the moral obligation lies with the mother.

  8. Pingback: Looking for an argument in support of eating meat « Socratic Society

  9. To possibility to consuming kangaroo muscle instead of cow muscle has come up several times in discussion.

    On ABC National’s Science Show this topic was explored. George Wilson Director of the Australian Wildlife Services in Canberra has done a through investigation on the proposal.


    Rangeland cattle produce about 3% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. But kangaroos digest their food in a different way to cattle and don’t produce the methane. Replacing cattle with kangaroos will save the production of greenhouse gases.

  10. Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, delivers a keynote address on the devastating role factory farms are playing in the climate change crisis at Animal Legal Defense Fund’s “Future of Animal Law” conference at Harvard Law School in March 2007.

    According to the 2007 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock generate a whopping 18 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions—that’s even more than the gas-guzzling transportation industry.

  11. peter singer himself said in person (at the sydney 2030 forum, august 2009), with numbers upon numbers to support his claim, we would eat all our kangaroos away by the end of the year if we really thought they could replace our meat intake. he is clever to be able to use the environmental ethics as a means to an end – the equal consideration of animals.

    back to the first question re ham: man up and cook your own vego food and amaze mum, instead of pussyfooting around with your ethics. it sounds like far too much time is being spent philosophising, and very little doing. get get.

  12. A couple of ideas from an agriculturists who loves a good steak.

    Regarding air pollution – spend a day in an enclosed room with a cow, and spend tomorrow in a closed room with a car who’s motor is running. In which room will you die first????
    Anyone who says that a cow produces more pollution that a running automobile is nuts.

    Another thing that most people do not know is that cattle are ruminants, meaning they can digest cellulose, a compound in grasses that we humans (nonruminants) cannot digest. Most cattle are grown on land that is not suitable for growing conventional row crops like corn and soybeans on. If we did not raise cattle on this land (and eat the grass), it would not be utilized to help feed our population.

    There are many vegetairians out there who are Christians and believe the bible. Jesus Christ used the parable of the Prodigal Son. In that parable it is told that the father “killed the fatted calf” to celebrate the comig home of his son. So being a vegetarian is not necessary biblical. It is a choice that people make.

    If people do not eat meat, that is their business. If I eat meat, it should be none of yours. We can disagree without being disagreeable.

  13. John, I think your point re. the efficient use of land which is unsuitable for conventional crops is valuable.
    Consider, however, that this argument only applies to one section of the meat industry. The case of pork, with which this discussion began, is quite different because pigs, like poultry, are raised almost exclusively in so-called factory farms, which rely on external ‘feed crop farming’ to supply the nutrients on which the animals are fed. The land used for feed crop farming could easily be employed in the production of crops for direct human consumption.
    If you truly justify your meat eating on the basis of the argument which you outlined, you ought to limit your consumption to free-range animals, and even then your consumption increases the total demand for meat and so is not entirely benign.
    Additionally, it is just silly to claim that your meat eating is ‘no one else’s business’. Any activity which contributes to the destruction of common resources such as arable land and clean air is obviously everyone’s business.

  14. Alan matthew Mann

    Vegetarianism has a good point, but it carries things a little to far

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